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The heresy of worshiptainment

The great heresy of the church today is that we think we’re in the entertainment business. A.W. Tozer believed this to be true back in the 1950s and 60s. Church members “want to be entertained while they are edified.” He said that in 1962. Tozer grieved, even then, that it was “scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction was God.”*

More recently, David Platt has asked: “What if we take away the cool music and the cushioned chairs? What if the screens are gone and the stage is no longer decorated? What if the air conditioning is off and the comforts are removed? Would His Word still be enough for his people to come together?” (Radical)

Would it be enough?

Tozer got it right: “Heresy of method may be as deadly as heresy of message.”

HALLOWEDNESS, NOT SHALLOWNESS

Like Tozer, we should be concerned that so many people in our churches want to be entertained while they worship. We should be concerned when we no longer recognize the difference between the two. And we should be concerned by the growing belief that adding more entertainment value to worship is necessary for the church to accomplish its mission.

I may stand alone, but it grieves me when I see worship services characterized more by props, performances, and pep rally atmospheres than by any sense of divine sacredness; and hallowedness giving way to shallowness.

This is not about worship styles. The issue is not traditional versus contemporary versus blended worship. It’s not about organ versus worship band. That discussion misses the point completely. This is about the heart and focus and intent of worship. The real issues, for me, are these:

1. Who or what is the spotlight really on?
If the figurative spotlight in our church services is on anyone other than God, it is not worship. If the spotlight shines brighter on human performance than on the gospel of Christ, it is not worship. If anyone other than Jesus is receiving our adulation and applause, it is not God we worship.

2. What message are we communicating?
The message of the church—the message the world needs to hear from us—is not, “Come and have a good time,” “Come and be entertained,” or “Come and find your best life now.”

Tozer said: “Christ calls men to carry a cross; we call them to have fun in His name.”

The message of the church is the message of the cross. Lest we forget, Jesus’ cross was a source of entertainment only for those who mocked Him as He hung on it.

3. How are lives changed?
“But our methods are attracting and winning people!” some will say.

Tozer addressed that sentiment: “Winning them to what? To true discipleship? To cross-carrying? To self-denial? To separation from the world? To crucifixion of the flesh? To holy living? To nobility of character? To a despising of the world’s treasures? To hard self-discipline? To love for God? To total committal to Christ?”

THE WORD DOES THE WORK

David Platt and the church he pastored, The Church at Brook Hills, decided to try to answer the question, “Is His Word still enough for His people to come together?” They stripped away the entertainment value and invited people to come simply to study God’s Word. They called it Secret Church. They set a date—on a Friday night—when they would gather from 6:00 in the evening until midnight, and for six hours they would do nothing but study God’s Word and pray. People came. A thousand people came the first time and it grew from that. Soon, they had to start taking reservations because the church was packed full. Secret Church now draws tens of thousands of people via simulcast in over 50 countries around the world—with no entertainment, no bells and whistles or smoke machines.

Why do they come? Platt explained in an interview: “People are hungry for the Word. There’s really nothing special or creative about it. It’s just the study of the Word …. The Word itself does the work!”

People are hungry. They are hungry for a diet of substance, not candy. More of the Word. Deeper into the Word. Less of what Tozer called “religious toys and trifles.”

*Tozer quotes are taken from Tozer on Worship and Entertainment by James L. Synder.

10 thoughts on “The heresy of worshiptainment

  1. Kit Moore

    It is interesting how people can become critical of how churches do things differently to attract people to church. What does it matter if a church does a great job with worship experience. The worship leaders can not control the heart of the worshiper, but they can offer a great environment to worship God. God calls us to worship Him. I find it hard to believe that God would frown upon thousands of his people coming together to focus on worshipping Him.
    It could just as easily be said to come together to listen to a pastor teach could be worshipping the pastor and not God’s word. This is all a heart issue that is between individuals and the Holy Spirit.
    I think it is very important to provide a great experience for those that do not have a relationship with Christ while they are at church. What is more important to God? God wants His lost children to know him. That should be the focus.

    Liked by 18 people

    1. Mike Livingstone Post author

      Thanks for your comments Kit, but the issue here is not whether we should “do things differently to attract people.” That’s missing the point. Of course we want to reach people. But you said it yourself: we should provide a great “worship experience.” The key word in that statement is WORSHIP. You are exactly right: “God calls us to worship Him.” The point of concern is when we fail to see the difference between entertainment and worship. There is a difference. I simply suggested we ask 3 questions: Who is the spotlight really on? What is the message we are communicating? How are lives changed? I can tell you the answer to the last question. Lives are changed by the power of the Word and not by the quality of our performances. That’s the real point here.

      Liked by 26 people

  2. Stefan Harus

    Kit….you said it yourself: “God wants His lost children to know Him. That should be the focus……”
    Exactly! So the question is, if the people in the churches of today have possibilities to learn to know Him or just “the frame of the picture” so to say….

    Liked by 3 people

  3. James S

    Hello,
    I hope my sharing my personal experience and in doing so how I arrived at my own understanding of God will not be out-of-place in this blog about worship. I also recognize and affirm that my opinion is only an opinion. It is no more or less valuable than anyone else’s. Only God knows the truth on the matter of worship and farbeit from me or anyone else to presume to know the mind of God. I’m telling my story here because I left the church.
    I’m from a conservative, religious family. I attended a traditional church very regularly all throughout my childhood. It was ultimately a frustrating experience. The music, the sermon, the relationships with everyone else left me unfulfilled. Everyone around me seemed to be into it. I was out of place. There was an unspoken conformity among the members that I could not naturally adhere to.
    During college, I joined a campus ministry and stayed involved throughout my entire college career. It was the single most formative experience I had ever known. I am the person I am today largely due to the relationship I had with my friends there and our minister. I know that a person’s college experience is extremely formative, regardless of any religious association. However, my ecclesiastical frustration was relieved and my sense of unfulfillment was replaced with a sense of ministry and purpose in college ministry. We ministered to the poor (construction projects in impoverished countries, habitat houses), had a blast together, had parties, studied the Bible & lived like normal college students too. For the first time in my life, I had found my place in a community of believers.
    Bible study was 1.5h every week. It was the first time in my Christian education experience in which I was encouraged to doubt and to think critically. I learned that the Bible could be interpreted in many contradictory ways, that science and Christianity were not necessarily mutually exclusive, and most importantly, that God did not call us to like-mindedness and that God’s grace is greater than than the sum of our errors, misinterpretations, sins, imperfections, problems, shortcomings, etc.
    Regarding worship styles, there’s not a lot of difference between the traditional worship service I had known as a child and the worship services I attended in campus ministry. Same format, similar music. The preaching was a lot more intellectual. (Our campus minister never yelled, the slew of preachers I’d known as a child worked themselves up into a blithering hissy every time they mounted the pulpit.) The point I’m making is that worship became meaningful for me only after I began to grow in a Christian community and get involved in ministering to others and study the Bible critically. So why did I leave the church? Because I have never again experienced the sense of connectedness and ministry that I knew in college. At least not in any church.
    As I said before, I don’t presume to know the mind of God. I live in faith that God will forgive my sins and will recognize my will to serve & worship, whether my service & worship are “correct” or not, theologically speaking. I’ve been to a few contemporary worship services. The ones I’ve been to had gimmicks, light shows, contemporary music, very expressive preaching & slogans. I felt out of place. Not my kind of atmosphere. The people there seemed to be into it. I can only conclude that it’s not for me, so by definition, it’s not for everybody. Nonetheless, it seems to be for some. My point? People who leave the church or people who attend the Secret Church are seemingly like I was: unfulfilled by what feels shallow to them. I also personally know people who attend contemporary worship services. They are fulfilled. They reach out in ministry around them outside the church as well as within the church. I have no idea what pleases God or not, regarding corporate worship, or what attitudes, actions or habits constitute it. Flashy lights, peppy music, simple, emotional preachin’ strike me as shallow. Sharing in community, praying, studying the Bible, contemplating, doing for the less fortunate, working in service to others are the actions that I believe constitute worship and ministry. Not everyone feels the same way. I can live with that. Praise be to God for the differences that can exist between individuals. May God forgive us all for our shortcomings.
    The only danger I see in some churches is the whole financial aspect. I feel waaaay more at home in a church where more money is spent on ministry outside the church than on inside.

    Liked by 16 people

  4. Phil

    As praise team leader I feel praising God through music is an awesome expression of our love for God, If all songs are centered on Christ. I have felt God taking over the service through the music that was being performed. At the Path Church we always pray before service and practice and I make it known that this is all done for Gods glory that we only want to be used to lead the lost to him. True we do play on a stage but it was there before I came to the Church I would be just as happy to play from the baptistry out of sight if I thought it was taking away from our worship service. True a stage ,lights ,smoke ,(we only have a stage) maybe a little much but I have to say I can remember a great worship song and it’s lyrics better than I can a great sermon (word for word). I think worshiping God today just as in Old Testament time should include music and song . It maybe a sign of the times with cellphones ,game boy, and other distractions it’s hard to capture the attention of young people today and I feel a lot of Church feel they must compete or fall like some of the Churches in European Countries.Well that’s my 2 cents God Bless ~Saved by Grace~

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Terry

    The entire premise or assertion of your thesis is that people at these music rich venues aren’t worshiping. I would be more concerned about judging the hearts of others when it comes to worship style. What if Jesus had not performed miracles to get the attention of non-believers? You think maybe the Pharisees were calling it entertainment or showing off. I think so. I thought the worship wars were over. This is a pretty tired argument, not to mention a terrible distraction. Not to say there’s anything wrong with quiet reflective worship. There certainly is not. Blessings.

    Liked by 13 people

    1. Mike Livingstone Post author

      No, Terry, the premise is that true worship is God centered. If it’s not, then it’s not worship, regardless of worship style. Sorry if it comes across as judgmental or distracting to say God and His Word must be the focus of all we do.

      Liked by 11 people

  6. jtnewsom

    I think of worship as the mountaintop experience of my week. The deciples with Jesus also wanted to make tabernacles and God simply said for them to hear his son.

    I love the Word of God. I never can get enough. I go to Church to try to learn more about it from folks wiser than me.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. macman007

    Ironically, we talk all the time about entertaining the presence of God. Hebrews 13:2 Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. If we are reminded to entertain strangers, especially since we may be entertaining angels, is it possible that we should also entertain Jesus. Check what Entertainment means – provide someone with enjoyment and to give attention or consideration to. What others have said here certainly rings true, that with the heart we worship Christ and maybe we worship him one day in a very quiet manner, maybe the next as we rock out on our chosen musical instrument that we are privileged to play due to talents that the one we worship has given us. Perhaps the following day we worship him by serving at a soup kitchen or perhaps helping an elderly person across the street. Worship is giving reverence and adoration. Reverence is a gesture indicative of respect. So, if we respect Christ, our actions will reflect that through our worship, be it from a voice singing, playing a musical instrument, or assisting the less fortunate. These are all acts of worship. A church service is not the only place and way to worship, but it definitely needs to be a part of our regular acts of worship. It really does boil down to what’s in the heart and that is the heart of the matter.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mike Livingstone Post author

      I agree with your last statement, that it boils down to what’s in the heart. Yes!

      For the record, the word translated by the KJV as “entertain” in Hebrews 13:2 means “to show hospitality.” It did not mean to provide enjoyment, but to care for someone’s needs. The New Testament concept and first century practice of showing hospitality has no relation to our use of the word entertainment in this context.

      Liked by 18 people

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